Corner kicks a dying art in the Premier League
The sight of Phil Jones backing toward the Queens Park Rangers crowd, arms raised to signal the plan to his Manchester United teammates, was rightly met with utter bemusement. It wasn't even, as many would have presumed upon seeing him do so once, a matter of mere coincidence; he wasn't taking a corner kick just because he was the nearest man when the ball went out. Shortly after, he was taking another one.
As centre-backs go, Jones is certainly one of the more technical. Comfortable in possession and decent enough as a marauding right-back or in central midfield, he wouldn't be the last defender you could possibly wish to have taking your team's set pieces. In this United side, teeming with creative, attacking and technical talent, however, it is quite a wonder how on earth the vastly experienced Louis van Gaal came to the conclusion that Jones genuinely is the man for the job.
Predictably enough, neither of Jones' corners came to anything. Ultimately, that did not matter, as United ran out 2-0 winners at Loftus Road. But Jones was taking corners in the first half, which ended goalless, and United could eventually have been made to pay.
But goals from corners seem to be an increasingly rare breed. Of the 570 goals scored in the Premier League this season, only 63 have come from what the football statisticians call "corner situations." That means goals from corners account for just 11.1 percent of the goals so far, a lower proportion than in any of the last six seasons.
Corners themselves certainly aren't rare. This campaign the Premier League is averaging more than 10 per game. In fact, some 2,371 corners have been taken this season, meaning a goal is scored from a corner every 37.6 attempts, or nearly once in every four matches. Given that every team can safely assume that they will get corners eventually, it seems strange that more emphasis is not placed on them, and teams are not more innovative when it comes to set plays. Too great a focus on corners does see managers criticised these days, and so they are reluctant to follow in the footsteps of West Brom manager Tony Pulis, for example, but there is an admirable pragmatism to doing so.
That managers are placing greater emphasis on looking to score by other means is one possible explanation for such a dearth of goals from corners. Another that has been posited in some quarters places some of the blame on Premier League pitches, or their surroundings to be precise. At Old Trafford it cannot help that there is such a steep and sudden decline just two yards from the touchline, which surely affects delivery from corners. At Southampton, dislodged turf in one corner recently caused Wayne Rooney to balloon a cross straight out for a goal kick. At plenty of other stadia, artificial surfaces bordering the pitch could also play a role. Then there is the argument that corner kick takers simply are not consistent enough.
At the Etihad on Sunday, Jesus Navas put in one of the most ineffective of wing displays you are likely to see in a long time. Pace and crossing are supposedly his two greatest attributes, but the Spaniard contrived to put in more inaccurate crosses (17) than any other player has in a Premier League match this season, with 11 of those attempted from corners.
Time and again he failed to beat the first man, or looped one up over the heads of his teammates, thereby quickly relinquishing possession back to the opposition. Interestingly, before that game, Navas had found a fellow City player with a fairly impressive 16 of his 32 corners into the box this season (50 percent accuracy). Six set up chances, but vitally not one has set up a goal.
It is unsurprisingly assist extraordinaire Cesc Fabregas who leads the way in terms of assists from corners this season, with five. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, the most pragmatic of managers going, has a team of myriad talents, but still chooses to place a great deal of importance on set pieces. With a goal every 16.5 corners taken, they are the most effective side in the league in this regard (as well as many more obvious others).
Interestingly, two other players have actually laid on more chances from corners than Fabregas (15), with Joey Barton (17) and the rejuvenated Stewart Downing (16) the best set pieces takers in this sense. Chris Brunt's excellent delivery sees him rank second (three) only to Fabregas for assists from corners just ahead of Downing, Sunderland's Seb Larsson and Tottenham's widely criticised Erik Lamela (two), thus giving some solace possibly to disappointed Spurs fans and club chairman Daniel Levy who took out a big chunk from his chequebook for the Argentine during the summer of 2013.
At the other end of the scale, predictably, the wayward crossing of Crystal Palace's Yannick Bolasie has seen him create only three chances from a 38 corners taken; perhaps something new manager Alan Pardew may look to improve upon as he strives to keep the club in the Premier League.
Rather surprisingly, Everton's Leighton Baines is also failing all too often from corners. He has eight assists this season, but only a single one has come from a corner situation. In fact, he has a cross accuracy from corners into the box of less than 23 percent, and from the 61 corners he has taken, just five have led to goal-scoring opportunities. For a player famed and celebrated for his trusty left foot, this is a terrible return. There is perhaps no Premier League manager more stubbornly principled than Roberto Martinez -- sticking to his relentless passing game has been Everton's downfall on more than one occasion this season -- and it may well be time for him to rethink his team's strategy when it comes to corners.
Corner taking is an art and possibly, it seems, a dying one. It could be time for some Premier League managers to take note of their importance and spend a little more time practicing them. Leaving your tallest centre back on set piece duties because the others aren't faring much better certainly isn't the answer.
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